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“With few and isolated exceptions, the rehabilitative efforts that have been reported so far have had no appreciable effect on recidivism.” (GASP!) If those words are true, the negative speaker of every NCFCA LD round this year could disprove every affirmative argument that rehabilitation reduces recidivism! What extraordinary news! The problem? Those words aren’t true. That is, they are only a little bit true.

Let me explain.

1974’s “What Works” Study

What it is

What works? Questions and Answers About Prison Reform” is a co-authored report, based on existing studies published between 1945 and 1967. Not just a few studies, this essay was based on the analysis of 231 studies. A year after its publication, a 736-page book was published expanding on the original essay. This study, primarily put together by the charismatic Robert Martinson, proved itself very influential in the U.S. tough on crime era. From this essay was drawn my opening quote. These words summed up the beliefs maintained by Robert Martinson while he wrote this essay. He believed rehabilitation to be a failing practice.

How it Affected Prison Reform

This essay’s conclusion, “Nothing Works,” became a slogan beloved by Americans who were simply fed up with crime. The “Nothing Works” doctrine helped to spur on the Supreme Court decision of Mistretta vs. United States. Here, the court upheld federal “sentencing guidelines” which effectively removed rehabilitation from being a viable option for sentences. Part of the reason this doctrine garnered such support, was because Americans on both the right and the left wanted to listen to politicians who promised to wipe out crime.

Why You Should Know it

The “Nothing Works” doctrine, as well as the essay in general, will influence NCFCA LD debates this year. I had it saved in my Negative backup, and I’ve faced in multiple times on Affirmative. But just like any other topic, don’t just simply accept an argument or idea simply because it’s used commonly. Every debater should think critically – not just of that which is easily criticized, but even the ideas that are widely accepted.

The Truth Behind This Study

Written for Political Gain

As I mentioned earlier, this study gained national attention primarily because it was what people wanted to hear. Many Americans were increasingly aware and worried about rising crime rates. From 1963-1973 the U.S saw violent crimes, murder, assault, rape, robbery, and burglary rates all more than double. Because rehabilitation had been a fundamental element of the U.S. Criminal Justice System until that point, many people were willing to blame it. As Martinson’s views spread across the country, more and more people were willing to believe it. For a nation emerging from the Vietnam War and an unruly drug culture, “nothing works” was a slogan people could get behind – or, worse, a scapegoat to blame all of their problems on. Richard Nixon ultimately made crime into a real political issue in his presidential bid. His argument: Criminal Justice institutions had failed primarily because they were based upon inconsistent and weak values like “rehabilitation.”

This isn’t something we should condemn Americans for. Rising crime rates are a concern to all of us. When criminal justice is based upon something as vague as rehabilitation, as it was in the U.S. at the time, AND when crime rates are rising rapidly, it makes sense that people would turn against it. What makes the success rate of rehabilitation so tricky to measure, is that when put into practice in the real world there’s no control group. The Washington Post explained,

As a result, one can have a “successful” program with high rates of recidivism. In one study of a family therapy program geared to hard-core delinquents, 30 adolescents (each with 20 previous adjudicated offenses), were matched with a control group of 44 delinquents with similar offense histories. At the end of a 15- month follow-up, 60 percent of the family therapy group had committed a new offense. This looked like failure. But then, we see that 93 percent of the control group which didn’t get the therapy had been so charged.”

Written for Personal Gain

If you want to blame somebody for the rapid release of rehabilitation in the U.S. Criminal Justice System, blame Robert Martinson. Martinson used this essay, it’s following book, and the fickleness of the culture, to become a sort of celebrity across the country. Being interviewed by People Magazine, appearing on 60 Minutes, and debating various criminologists, prison wardens, and legislators on the effectiveness of rehabilitation, Martinson gained national attention. He used the “What Works” essay for personal gain and as a means to get himself attention. In fact, he joined the research team only after they were well into their work. He was opportunistic, and changed the U.S. prison system for generations.

What can’t be said for certain is whether or not the findings of the study were accurate. One shouldn’t question the statistics and facts revealed through this study. However, the grand irony is that Robert Martinson, before committing suicide in 1980, reversed his views on rehabilitation. And yet, debaters are going to run back to this study time and time again because it originally matched their argument – despite the fact that this study was only successful because it was people wanted to hear. Debaters live in their own little world where if they find one person who says what they want to hear, they’ll run with it – disregarding all other truths. There is no honor, character, or respect in this. To base an argument upon evidence from a man who reversed his opinion on what he said is unethical.  I encourage you to be unlike Robert Martinson, don’t just search to find what you want to hear, but debate with integrity, form arguments based on the truth, and leave this study out of your negative case.

But, at the end of the day, you now know what to say if your opponent brings up the “Nothing Works” doctrine.

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